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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hotel helps homeless families

Two families are chosen for weeklong stay, activities and meals

Two-year-old Sythia Bowen plays in the lobby at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday. Sythia’s family is going to spend Christmas at the hotel, courtesy of the hotel and the nonprofit Family Promise of North Idaho. (Kathy Plonka)

A 2-year-old girl’s grin, as she frolicked in the lobby of a Coeur d’Alene hotel Thursday morning, gave no hint that her family has no place to call home.

And that was precisely the goal of the staff at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites as they worked to deliver Christmas joy to two homeless families they’re hosting for the week.

Working with Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that houses homeless families in a network of churches, the hotel offered the families a weeklong stay and prepared a full slate of activities and meals. That includes a water park visit, meals in restaurants, a Christmas dinner with all the fixings, presents and stockings by the tree on Christmas morning and even a visit from Santa Claus.

“We wanted it to be like a Christmas vacation for these families. We wanted every single day to be exciting,” said Jennifer Peat, the hotel’s general manager. “We just have some really great people in this community and they all want to help.”

Christina Vanwert is staying at the hotel with her boyfriend, Ivan Bowen, and their daughter, Sythia Bowen, 2. Sythia has most enjoyed the hotel room’s large jetted bathtub, Vanwert said.

“It’s wonderful,” Vanwert said. “We’re just really glad we have somewhere to be.”

This is the second year the hotel has hosted homeless families for the holidays, Peat said. The hotel was contacted last year by Family Promise volunteers who came up with the idea then went looking for a hotel willing to help. The search stopped when they found Holiday Inn.

Cindy Wood, Family Promise’s director, said her “jaw just dropped” when she visited the hotel and realized all that was planned. “This isn’t just respite and privacy. It’s a full blessing.”

The hotel staff raises money for charity year-round by selling extras such as laundry soap and bottled water. In addition, when guests ask for the “Dodger” room rate, $10 of the cost goes toward the fund, which fills a variety of charitable needs.

And Dodger? He’s the hotel dog, a rescued Weimaraner with more than 2,600 friends on Facebook.

The hotel staff has been working for weeks to solicit donations from North Idaho businesses to make the families’ stay special. On Wednesday, the families went to the water park at Triple Play Family Fun Park then ate at Fedora Pub & Grille.

“Coeur d’Alene is just amazing with supporting local charities,” said Melody Breidenbach, the hotel’s sales director.

Destinee Walcker said that when her family entered the Family Promise program, she had no idea “any of this was going to happen.” Family Promise offers a 90-day program that houses families and connects them with resources in the community to help find jobs and other services.

Walcker said she cried when they arrived at the hotel and saw what had been prepared for them. Her 9-year-old son, Garrett, was worried about where the family would be for Christmas and what would happen.

Her family became homeless for the first time when she lost her job a couple of months ago and paying rent became a struggle, she said. Her boyfriend, Randy Humphreys, has found work at a skilled nursing center and the family is saving toward an apartment.

“When you first have to make the choice to go to Family Promise, it’s hard to swallow,” Walcker said. “I’ve never been in this position before.”

But, she said, the family was never judged, only helped.

“The most important thing at Christmas is to be together with your family,” she said. “We’re thankful to be together.”